Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Suburbia, by Penelope Spheeris

I don't recall anymore when or where I first heard of Penelope Spheeris's film Suburbia (1983). It must've been an old Finnish music magazine, I had a bunch of those in the late eighties and I used to peruse them. Now I had finally a chance to see the film, and I saw it on big screen, which, I'm sure you know, is the option I prefer. The film seems to be out on DVD, and it was released on VHS in Finland thirty years ago, but I've never seen it anywhere.

Suburbia tells about a bunch of homeless teenagers, who have crashed an abandoned suburban house and live there all by themselves, sometimes stealing stuff from garages, sometimes going to punk concerts. It's a touching tragedy, with genuine heart-felt empathy for the kids, even though they are also shown to be jerks, racists or homophobes. One of them is a junkie, and his stuff leads to an overdose of another teenager. The teenagers are harassed by a duo of rednecks with guns, and their action leads to a needless death of a young boy. The movie ends in pessimistic notes.

The film has some great scenes at punk gigs, with bands like DI, T.S.O.L. and The Vandals (see above) giving their frantic best. The gigs are a mess, with young punks running and jumping and crashing on each other in mid-air. Some of the gigs end up violently, with the youngsters ripping off clothes from a young woman who's clearly in a wrong place, or some rednecks crashing the party with knives. It's not a pretty sight, even though Penelope Spheeris clearly knew what she was doing, since she had already made the punk rock documentary The Decline of Western Civilization (which I haven't seen).

Suburbia has lots of poignant shots about the desolate sites of Southern California. It was already like this over thirty years ago, even though the eighties was supposed to have been the decade of fortune and fame for everyone. In the beginning, we also see shots of wild dogs running rampant in the midst of abandoned houses, and it's a captivating sight. I don't know many American films that show this kind of societal decay - well, there have been some newer ones, like Killing Them Softly or Nebraska, but they are new. And then there's of course The Grapes of Wrath by John Ford. Spheeris was onto something here.

Suburbia was produced by Roger Corman, and it shows in some scenes of mild nudity and fist fights. Some of them are longer than they'd have to be. Corman had earlier made films about teenager sub-cultures, like The Wild Angels, and I'm sure he saw something similar in Suburbia and in the punk rock scene. Yet, Suburbia is just not another schlock film, it's a serious look at how teenagers are treated in American society. It's sometimes clichéd or badly acted (all the actors are amateurs, some of them are punk rockers from different bands), but it's very sincere and shows that the writer-director knew what she was doing. It's a small miracle Spheeris has since done films like The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), which admittedly I haven't seen. Wayne's World, her famous film, shows some of the flair for the rock'n'roll scene that's evident in Suburbia, but it's only a harmless comedy compared to the earlier film.

Spheeris started out in the 1960's doing some experimental and underground films, when she was a student at UCLA. I had a chance to see some of her early films last year at the Tampere Short Film Festival here in Finland. I didn't write anything about them at the time and my memories of the films are a bit dim, but here goes nevertheless.

Synthesis, Spheeris's first film from 1968, was an ordinary experimental film, unlike any other film she's done (to my knowledge). Bath (1969) is a short film that shows a woman masturbating taking a bath. It's a sensual film, not really shocking, but still possibly one of the first films showing a woman masturbating all by herself, without a man or without the film being porn. I Don't Know (1970) is a 20-minute film about the relationship between a lesbian woman and a transsexual man, and Spheeris depicts them warmly, without any patronizing or shocking revelations. The National Rehabilitation Center (1972) is a mockumentary about concentration camps aimed for possible subversives. It really looks like a mediocre newsreel or educational film, but isn't. There were also films called Shit, Hats Off to Hollywood, and No Use Walkin' When You Can Stroll, but I don't remember much of them. Here's more on Spheeris's early films and their restorations.

More Overlooked Films at Todd Mason's blog, possibly later on.


Todd Mason said...

Sorry it's been a while since I got back into the list swing.

"Penelope Spheeris clearly knew what she was doing"--yes, being as exploitive as hell. Her whole point has been (with her kid culture/music films) that there's nothing to punk or metal but nihilism, which is bullshit, but a popular enough view.

Also, I think you missed all the '70s and '80s movies in the States, at least, about the creation of our rust belts and the collapse of the cities...It's a subtext even of films as corporate as GHOSTBUSTERS...and certainly its sequel...

jurinummelin said...

I obviously didn't see Suburbia being exploitative, though I can understand what you're referring to. As for the seventies movies, yes, there were many critical films about the American society, but I can't think of any that shows this kind of decay. Any examples?

Todd Mason said...

Wait till you see the three music films. She's an American Jacopetti.

Depending on how you're looking at it, such films as BLUE COLLAR, THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, LITTLE MURDERS, BREAKING AWAY, REPO MAN or even LIQUID SKY and others are indicative of current collapse, albeit the sf films are somewhat comic infernal, as that sort of sf will tend to be. Certainly there was no end of blaxploitation films and others like them exploring how run down our cities and their 'burbs have become, too often. Even a film as stylized as RIVER'S EDGE seems to me more honest than SUBURBIA specifically, in dealing with similar situations and dilemmas.

Todd Mason said...

Though perhaps I'm also unimpressed because of how US television has been handling this at least since HILL STREET BLUES, and BARNEY MILLER before that...reaching greater heights in NYPD BLUE and particularly HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET and THE CORNER and THE WIRE.

Todd Mason said...

Hell, EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE and NYPD among 1960s tv.

jurinummelin said...

I was thinking of Repo Man and I should've mentioned it earlier already, but it's a later film. Liquid Sky is as far from Hollywood as you can get. Haven't seen River's Edge, though I've been interested in it, for all its Twin Peaks connections. But a fair point regarding others. Carpenters's They Live, at least its beginning, is also of the same theme with the police thrashing the shack village of the homeless.